city portraits

Is Dadar, Mumbai’s first planned suburb, becoming hipster cool? (And at what cost?)

The gentrification which began in the neighbourhood’s buildings has spread to its eateries.

Think of Dadar, the middle-class suburb in the heart of Mumbai, and the first thing that comes to mind is the dense crush of its eponymous train station.

The mass of humanity that pours out of the local trains during peak hours has earned the neighbourhood minor internet fame. The most famous of the memes it has inspired, “Dar ke aage jeet hain, Dadar ke aage seat hain” – there is victory beyond fear, there is a train seat after Dadar station – has made its way to T-shirts worn by Mumbai’s hip and fashionable crowd.

So closely associated is the neighbourhood with its crowded train station that when the outlet of a global burger chain came to the area, diners were enticed into the establishment with an advertisement that read: the only place in Dadar where you will get a seat.

Created out of agricultural land in 1899-1900 under the Dadar-Matunga-Wadala-Sion scheme to decongest the city following the Bombay plague of 1896, Dadar is often referred to as Mumbai’s first planned suburb. Dadar is a suburb of firsts: a documentary on the origins of Mumbai’s favourite street food, the vada pao, suggests that it was created in the crowded lanes outside Dadar’s railway station. In Mathura Bhavan, a dilapidated structure in the neighbourhood, the grand old man of Indian cinema, Dadasaheb Phalke, is said to have shot many parts of India’s first feature-length film, Raja Harishchandra (1913).

Residents of the area frequently boast about how Dadar has everything they need – hospital, stations, bus stops, shopping areas and schools. This was enormously appealing to middle-class tenants – or the clerk class, as they were referred to at the turn of the last century.

With their arrival came the culture associated with them. The city’s first Navratri utsav, the first rangoli competition and its first coaching class can all be traced to the interconnected lanes of the central suburb, according toBahurangi Bahudhangi Dadar, a Marathi book on the neighbourhood’s history.

But today, that former hub of (mostly Maharashtrian) culture and politics is witnessing tremendous change.

Last November, the Maharashtra government knocked off the heritage status of the buildings on the periphery of Dadar’s Shivaji Park, the city’s largest public park and the birthplace of Mumbai cricket, where cricketers such as Sachin Tendulkar began their careers. In 2015, the historic Hindu Colony precinct that is home to Rajgruha, the house that Babasaheb Ambedkar built in the 1930s and where he lived during his final years, suffered a similar fate.

While change had visited the area steadily in the 21st century, the pace has accelerated recently as a result of the legislation. Where there were once old buildings with intricately designed, wooden balconies, are now the fiefdoms of blue barricades with hoardings promising a better life. “Dadar is not a place, it’s a culture,” read the hoardings, but wanton redevelopment has thrown up a paradox. The rapidly changing face of the neighbourhood might cause the loss of all the things that make up this culture.

“Now, due to rising rents, Maharashtrians have moved out of this area and with them Dadar’s rich culture has disappeared,” Vikas Patil, one of the researchers behind Bahurangi Bahudhangi Dadar, said in an interview to DNA. “Soon, it will become just another crowded suburb, like Andheri or Mulund, with no character of its own.”

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Developers have been quick to capitalise on the decision over the historic Hindu Colony, lest it be overturned based on the party in power, and have demolished buildings in the area with gay abandon. Residents have rejoiced at the change – and who can blame them? Hundred-year-old buildings were difficult to maintain. The price was right and there was always the fear that any opposition to developers could take a turn for the worse. An incident tied to the nexus between politicians, builders and the mafia remains as an imprint in the memories of the neighbourhood’s residents.

Ambedkar Road runs on one side of the Hindu Colony. It is edged by 50-year-old rain trees and mahogany trees on either side. “When the Duke of Edinburgh came here for a visit, he compared it to the Riviera,” recalled Monica Bose, an elderly resident who grew up in the area. Running parallel to Ambedkar Road is the similarly sylvan Sir Balchandra Road. On it is a towering building which replaced the ground-plus-three Laxmi Vilas building.

In 1996, when Laxmi Vilas was scheduled for redevelopment, Ramesh Kini, the only resident who refused the developer’s payout, died under mysterious circumstances. It was initially alleged that Raj Thackeray, then a leader of the Shiv Sena, was somehow involved in the killing, though the charge was never proved – and the Central Bureau of Investigation exonerated him.

Dadar’s infrastructure was never built to support its burgeoning population. The wide pavements are crowded with parked cars. Few of the new residents send their kids to the neighbourhood schools, once among the city’s best. A few institutions have transformed themselves into international schools in a bid to stay relevant. But this has resulted in a problem that has accompanied gentrification around the world: the shunting out of an area’s poor residents to make way for the rich.

“With every new person buying a flat in the area, obviously the character will change,” said Dr Bhavin Jhankaria, a long-time resident of the nearby Matunga, also part of the city’s first planned suburban development scheme. “The kind of people who could buy a flat in Hindu Colony when it was set up and the kind of people who can afford a flat now are vastly different.”

Said Bose: “People have paid so much to come and live here but it is not the old Hindu Colony. I remember when light would come in from every window and when the newspapers reported an eclipse, you could see it. Now I am blocked by the skyscraper coming up next to my building. The trees are becoming diminished, and we are living above the trees, the squirrels and birds were our friends, and now all that is gone.”

She added: “The only people to gain are the developers.”

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Each of the buildings in Hindu Colony was planned with a specific idea of urban design: for every one square foot indoors, there were 1.5 square feet outdoors.

“Housing is not just buildings, it is not just about Floor Space Index, you have to look at the whole area,” began Kamu Iyer, the architect who documented the area’s urban design in his book Boombay: From Precincts to Sprawl. Iyer is not very optimistic about the direction the development has taken in Dadar. “We are losing the light and ventilation, and once that is gone, there is no way to replace it. This will automatically affect the quality of life.”

Iyer believes the problem lies in the fact that few people buy in the area to live there. It is a market driven solely by speculation. People who held rent-controlled tenancies were pushed out because they could not afford to live there anymore. A similar transformation has already occurred in nearby Matunga, a former South Indian hub, whose residents were forced to move to Chembur in the eastern suburbs when redevelopment hit.

“It’s a complex issue,” Krupa Mehta Doshi said. Doshi, a longtime resident of Matunga, explained how a redeveloped building took up the shared space in their lane which was used by children to play. But she is still attracted by the possibilities redevelopment offers: “I still want my building to be redeveloped, even I want a garden or a swimming pool.”

In the afternoons, one can still occasionally hear the passing of an old salesman. As gated communities replace the ground plus two or three floor buildings, work is scarce for most salesmen except Bansilal. For nearly 40 years, the diminutive man has been selling chaat in the neighbourhood every day. “Bhelwala,” he cries, as he makes his way through the colony.

“When I used to come here before, I could go up each building but now the watchmen stop me,” Bansilal said. Despite this, the chaat-seller has not lost too much business. The burgeoning population of security guards and building attendants have now become part of his new clientele.

Many old buildings are frequently locked in lengthy legal disputes. Credit: Aakash Karkare
Many old buildings are frequently locked in lengthy legal disputes. Credit: Aakash Karkare

Over the last few years, as real estate prices around the city have skyrocketed and traffic is becoming increasingly worse, the area around Dadar has acquired a kind of cool that did not exist before. On restaurant-locator and food review platforms like Zomato, where aspirational South Mumbai once ended at Haji Ali, the formerly uncool suburb of Dadar has begun to show up often. The gentrification which began with the area’s buildings has now spread to the neighbourhood’s eateries.

A restaurant, known for years simply as The Udipi, closed its doors recently, and in its stead appeared The Lush, where Mumbai’s typical mix of multi-cuisine fare could be enjoyed in air-conditioned interiors. Soon, the neighbourhood also got its first hipster cafe and lounge bar, which Jhankaria, who also runs the popular blog Man From Matunga, described as the “only one from Dadar to Chunabatti”.

Both of these establishments came in those perennially cursed places that are common to every locality. The kind of places where no restaurants seem to work and they frequently change hands, menus and morph from restaurants to cafes and bistros, without success. This was before they settled onto their current state.

“When we think of Dadar East, we imagine congested shops where one can find the rarest of items, the Volvo buses to Pune and, for some of us, that granny or granny-like aunt who manages to overfeed us every time we visit!” reads one review of the year-old Grandmama’s Café, a short walk from Dadar TT station, where diners can dig into their macaroni and cheese, and rajma-chawal to the sounds of independent American acts such as Death Cab For Cutie.

“As first impressions go, Grandmama’s Café (once the humble Pritam Café) feels exactly like the breath of fresh coffee Dadar needs,” begins another review on the city culture website, Brown Paper Bag. “People of all kinds flock here – college kids, office goers, residents – glad that the neighbourhood finally has an all-day eatery that’s not Café Coffee Day.”

Credit: Grandmama’s Cafe/ via Facebook
Credit: Grandmama’s Cafe/ via Facebook

The nearby MRP or My Regular Place, described as “the country’s first and only full-bodied gaming all day Modern Asian Bistro”, finds similar treatment in the business newspaper Mint: “Dadar, the middle-class stronghold in Mumbai, is often ignored by new restaurateurs in their quest for a SoBo or Bandra address. So it was a pleasant surprise to see a modern Asian restaurant open doors in a neighbourhood that seriously lacks fun places.”

Abhyaraj Kohli, who owns both Grandmama’s Café and My Regular Place, said over the phone, “Five to 10 years ago, places likes these would never have worked in the area.”

Kohli, a long-time resident of Dadar, belongs to the second-generation of a family that runs the Pritam group of hotels. Both restaurants have met with success, frequented by local residents as well as outsiders. There is never a moment when they do not seem to be full.

“People tell me finally we have a place in Dadar that we can dress up and go to,” Kohli added with a laugh.

The South Mumbai gravy train may actually have passed by the middle-class neighbourhood – developers might be overplaying the demand for a house in Dadar. “See, South Mumbai might have held a certain charm but that was a generation ago,” said Deepak Rao, a local historian. “Now, that idea of the good life has shifted to other locations in the suburbs such as Malad where there is enough space to have fun and it is not expensive.”

Suresh Keswani, a real estate broker, said, “Houses in Lower Parel have the most demand. It is closest to most offices and also has enough space for club houses,” and added as an afterthought, “which no-one goes to.”

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